To Outline or Not to Outline?

Tolstoy Writing Painting

Some fiction writers outline, others don’t. I think it’s a matter of temperament. Strategists outline while more impulsive writers simply write. I think outlining has undeniable benefits, especially for young writers whose voice is quavering and who don’t yet have a clear sense of direction, those who, without a map, are likely to get lost in the abysmal whiteness of the blank page.

For my part, I can say that whether I chose to outline or not depends on what I’m writing, and on how long and complex it is. A short story doesn’t need an outline. But a 300-pages novel does.

I believe that outlining is crucial when it comes to writing non-fiction, because then thoughts must be well-organized so that the writing is concise. Stories, however, can be vague, and there are many cases when vagueness makes the narrative more interesting. Think of Chekhov’s short stories and of Kafka’s novels. And think of my 50-word tales too.

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
― John Steinbeck

The strongest argument against outlining is that it shackles the imagination. But is that true? Does the knowledge that you’re going to die someday – an outline of life that you sketch in your mind from a tender age – take the enjoyment out of your life? Far from it. It gives you goals and a purpose.

I feel more restricted when I write a something long without an outline. Anything can happen then, and that scares me, because too many choices are as bad as no choice at all. My imagination becomes constipated, and as I stare at the blank page, I realize it is defeating me.

“I write to discover what I know.”― Flannery O’Connor

I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it. Outlining actually helps with this. It does not stiffen creation but encourages it, by giving me a direction, and a purpose. Although I know where I am bound to, I don’t know where I will end up, nor what will happen to me on the way. Without an outline I am more likely to halt and scratch my head, not knowing what to do next.

“Adventure is just bad planning.”― Roald Amundsen

Outlining shouldn’t be overdone though. Too much outlining will be as limiting as no outlining at all. Writing is an art, not a science. Good writing is often done without too much reasoning.

I think reasoning is dangerous, not only when it comes to writing, but to life in general, and relying too much on it is placing too much confidence on our species, which frankly, not so long ago dwelt in trees. Reasoning is, has been, and will be the cause of great evil in the world. Let us recall the Holocaust…

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Do you outline?

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44 thoughts on “To Outline or Not to Outline?

  1. I often try to outline but eventually the urge to just write overpowers the urge to be more organized. If there is an intricate piece of dialog that I need to navigate through, however, I try to jot down the points that I intend to bring out in the conversation.

      1. Yep. If I’m asking a friend’s help in figuring out sequences I may write an outline for their benefit to make sure we are on the same page but that outline rarely is of use to me. I tend to discard it. But I’m beginning to see where more outlining may be needed since I’m in the process of developing a novel called ‘Billion Man Rapture’. I have to keep track of the many different angles I could take the story, so for this one, I think outlining is in order.

          1. 🙂 I posted a chapter to my blog but I”m doing some heavy duty rework on it, which I will post the revised chapter. Right now I’m deciding on how I want to structure my work. This would be the first time I’m writing a large scale literary work so I’m considering breaking the entirety of the story into novellas. Cuts down on the need to outline, at least so I believe.

  2. I rarely outline and only like to do it after I’ve written quite a bit for a piece and have ran as far as I could without an outline. I do think they are helpful, but I feel they can be more stifling than useful if used too soon in the process. Every story needs some space to grow and evolve.

      1. My last novel that I’m still finishing, I outlined everything after I had three fourths of it written out. At first, I was just going where the story was taking me until I couldn’t go any further. The outlining helped at that point to bring it all together and to allow it all to flow.

  3. I never outline. I simply write until my heart’s content. I begin with a quick idea and expand on it until I’m tired or writing or can’t think of anything else. I think my stories generally go off of a snowball effect. One incident leads to another which brings about a new character that has a different part in the story. That sometimes brings on another situation. However, I find that my writing is also very broad. Would outlining help to make it more uniform and smooth or should I continue to go on impulse and allow my creativity to flow freely?

    1. If I were you, I would do both. I’d write freely and then I would outline, arranging what I have written, and then I would do a rewrite. And the result… Curioser and curioser!

  4. Almost always. Mainly because I have too many complex thoughts and, sometimes, in two different languages.

  5. For blog posts I very rarely pre-plan. For longer works… well I’m still working on that. I love Blake Snyder’s concept of ‘beats’ for plotting. For example at the end of act two in every bad romance the hero loses his/her personal goal and has a major (seemingly final) tiff with his beloved. They’re two beats that should be at the appropriate place in the story. That’s how I plot: I know that the characters have to hate each other here so that there where they start to love each other it feels like a huge change and here they have to go from like to love so that at that point when they break up it’s heartbreaking. Worldbuilding and writing the scenes that I’m excited about fills in all the details beyond that.

  6. Outlining. I think it tedious and a bore. I love to write free and let my characters tell me their stories. But I discovered while writing my current novel that I’m close to the end and I’m stuck. I’ve been stuck for four months. Or let’s say the spirit has lifted and I’m not quite sure how to summon it again.

    Now I came across a novel I wrote and finished back when I was sixteen. I am currently rewriting it, and I’m loving the work I’m doing expanding the story, giving it more depth and developing the characters a little more. Its great knowing that I know where this story is going, and that it has a foreseeable end.

    I am in favor of outlining now, but I think I will do what you say, write freely, outline afterwards, and then rewrite the whole thing.

  7. I outline to a point. I found that when I created too detailed of an outline, I felt too constrained. So I do a little of both – outline and pantsing!

  8. I don’t usually outline because I like to let my writing wander. I wrote an outline, though, when I started working on my current book so keep myself on track, and to work out plot details so I wouldn’t confuse myself. I’ve found it helpful when working on something larger like that.

  9. I can not even seem it venture past the short story… and it really resounded in me when you wrote “I think outlining has undeniable benefits, especially for young writers whose voice is quavering and who don’t yet have a clear sense of direction, those who, without a map, are likely to get lost in the abysmal whiteness of the blank page.” I think this map will be the secret to my success in a larger work.
    I want to know more about your thoughts on vague writing. My writing always tends to be vague, and sometimes I am worried I am not connecting strongly with the reader.
    Sincerely,
    Reagan

  10. I don’t consider outlining a shackle because even when I do outline a story, the final drafts often tends to be in a completely different direction. I outline out of necessity with formal papers because otherwise I will go off on a tangent and make no sense I at all.When it comes to creative writing and stories, I do a rough, incomprehensible outline which really shouldn’t count as an outline. It’s mostly bullet points of what I want the story to include and where I see the story heading. From there, I just let the ideas flow and it usually works out pretty well.

  11. I’m considering outlining the last book in my trilogy even thought I have all the sequences in my mind, I want to write and finish it within a four month period. My first book I enjoyed the creative process of not outlining, but the second book took longer than expected, which is presently being edited. I think it was because it took a stubborn turn and turned into a mystery rather than the treasure hunt, now to be the 3rd and final one in this trilogy.

  12. I’ve always disliked outlining. Too tedious. But I’ve only written longer works sporadically, and for those I did use outlines. I think it depends on what you’re setting out to do, too… Certainly they are of some use. I don’t think they restrict, either, unless it is to restrict a writer to being effective rather than to being all over the place.

    Oh, hatted boy. I hope you laugh today.

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